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Looks aren't everything 

Serious roles a long time coming for Jennifer Connelly

Long before her recent critically acclaimed roles in such films as Waking the Dead and Requiem for a Dream, there are those who knew Jennifer Connelly had it in her to deliver an intricately textured performance on the scale of her work in A Beautiful Mind (opening Dec. 21). And then, whether she likes it or not, there are those who really don't care, so long as they get to gawk at the 31-old-year actress on screen.

Such has been the bane of Connelly's Hollywood existence from the time she debuted (at age 12) in Sergio Leone's gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America. Save for the occasional higher-profile assignment -- e.g., Labyrinth or The Rocketeer -- she had been routinely wasted ever since as decoration in drek ranging from Career Opportunities to Mulholland Falls. "Maybe I was responsible for a lot of that myself," the actress concedes in retrospect, "but it finally got to the point where I had to say, 'Enough is enough.'"

An ostensible showcase for the conspicuous ticks and quirks of Russell Crowe as enigmatic Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, director Ron Howard's (highly fictionalized) biopic A Beautiful Mind finds its imperative balance in the subtle intelligence and emotion of Connelly's turn as his loving wife, Alicia. If nothing else, the film should put to rest once and for all any lingering doubts about the precision of her acting skill.

Creative Loafing: How does it feel to be finally getting better roles and more recognition? And why did it take so long? I mean, it's been nearly 20 years since you made Once Upon a Time in America, and your potential was clearly present even then.

Jennifer Connelly: All I can say is it feels really extraordinary to be working on projects like these last few I've done. They're the kinds of scripts you rarely come across and when you do, or at least in my case, it was like, "God, I'd love to do something like this. Now, if only they'd cast me. Oh, come on, they'll never cast me. Wow, they cast me."

Talk a little about the double-edged sword in Hollywood, where on the one hand actresses are often cast in a movie because of their looks, and where on the other hand beauty can be a detriment in terms of being taken seriously.

But even more than that, I think it was maybe just that I was a kid, you know? I mean, it has been 20 years since Once Upon a Time in America. It's taken me this long to develop or adjust my focus. I don't know if people ever dismissed me as just another pretty face or whatever, but I do know that when you're 14 or 16 or 18 or whatever, that's different from when you're 30 or 32. Your priorities change. Your level of commitment and your attitude about the work matures. Your sense of yourself strengthens. That's just normal evolution, not only as an actress but as a person.

Was there ever a time when you lost faith or lost interest in pursuing an acting career?

I never lost hope, but I did go through a period where I felt there were certain things I wanted to communicate and express in my work, certain kinds of projects I wanted to work on, but there was that perception of me you alluded to, left over from my earlier films.

Requiem for a Dream certainly shattered that perception. How difficult a film was it to make?

Here's the thing about making movies like that, and like A Beautiful Mind, too: Even if they're emotionally very stressful and painful to get through, it's so fulfilling at the end of the day to feel like you've worked on something that might mean something. At the very least, both of these films meant something to me, regardless of whatever anyone else happens to feel about them. You come home from work trashed and exhausted, but you go in the next day feeling really good about working on a project you can be proud of.

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